Debating Labor's Future

— The Editors

NEWS FLASH TO those among us from another planet: Unions in the United States are in crisis.  Declining membership, weakening bargaining clout, concessionary bargaining, the ravages of lean production, and a sustained assault on the limited workers' rights that were won in the past add up to a decidedly ugly picture (painted in further detail by Jerry Tucker elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current.)

This really isn't news, obviously.  For the corporate media, the taken-for-granted conventional wisdom is that organized labor is a dinosaur shuffling toward extinction in the Wal-Martized global economy.  Working people, however, are looking for alternatives to a future of permanent downsizing, insecurity and life on the edge of poverty.

While unions slump, the amount of discussion and debate among labor leaders, union staff, academics, blogsters, and the occasional rank-and-file union member seems to grow in equal proportion.  The extent of the crisis is demonstrated by the uncertainty over whether the United States' 50-year-old federation, the AFL-CIO, will emerge in one piece—and if so, in what form—from its upcoming convention.  From the outside the argument may seem like a spectator event "Now Playing in a Labor Movement Near You," but the stakes are quite real for all of us, unionists or not.

Two issues have tended to dominate recent labor struggles, along with the restructuring of the U.S. economy: (a) the entrenchment of two-tier contracts, in which workers entering the labor force from now on will be permanently lower-waged, and (b) the shifting of health care costs to workers, the pressure on whom becomes even more intense with General Motors' massive announced first-quarter loss.  To these can be added the growing crisis of company-funded pension systems, at the same time that Social Security is under unprecedented assault.

All these crises are inherently political as well as "collective bargaining" issues.  Whether the labor movement can effectively confront them will go a long way to determine not only its own survival, but the conditions in which we all live for the next generation.  In this context, much of labor's internal argument as presently conducted is admittedly not too inspiring.

Shuffling the Structures

Most recent exchanges seem to center how best to manage with the already existing terrain—how unions can reachieve some amount of density in their industries; or how joint organizing/bargaining strategies might work; or what the proper percentage of a union's budget should be devoted to organizing.  There is some questioning (if not nearly enough in our view) about the financial and staff resources thrown into attempting to elect the likes of John Kerry.  In any case, this give-and-take rests on the notion that at best, unions will regain strength in careful incremental steps inside a business unionist model driven straight from headquarters.

Within labor's institutional structures, the AFL-CIO's debates over the structure and strategy of U.S. unions seem more and more to have only increased in volume and visibility.  Proposals fly back and forth issuing from here an International union, there a central labor council.  Some of the ideas have real merit in potentially pushing the labor movement forward; others are barely worth the paper they are printed on; but for all that noise the early March AFL- CIO Executive Committee meeting ended on an almost anti-climatic note.

To be sure, SEIU President Andy Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee shouted across the table at each other about who gets to carve up the jurisdictional pie for a group of Illinois child care workers.  And there was definitely a redrawing of battle lines between labor leaders, with Stern and allies on one side and the incumbent AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and supporters on the other.

There was the formation of a new coalition of unions—seen by some observers as a more cynical and opportunist combination following the disbanding of unions since last year's New Unity Partnership—with the ostensibly progressive SEIU lining up with Hoffa Junior's Teamsters and the far-from-dynamic United Food and Commercial Workers.  (The NUP and SEIU leadership were extensively discussed by Steve Early in our September-October 2004 issue, ATC 112.)

But there wasn't much more to show for the year-long leadup to this meeting than an exchange of words, and the battle to see who could reduce dues to the already weak and decentralized federation.  Sweeney and crew won, promising to slash per capita dues paid to Washington even more aggressively than his challenger (who at least had the virtue of linking the cuts to an incentive plan for new organizing).

Perhaps the real battle for power lies around the corner this summer at the national AFL-CIO convention, but even there the arithmetic of power stands ready to defeat the would be top-down reformers (unions are rewarded votes at the convention in proportion to their membership).  Despite the fact that Stern can count on the votes of the Teamsters, the Laborers, UNITE HERE, UFCW, and possibly the UAW the total vote count falls well short of the 50% threshold needed to defeat the sitting president.

This kind of stalemate could end with what SEIU leaders have been threatening, sometimes in undertones and sometimes out loud: the split of the largest AFL-CIO union in the United States from the federation.  Whether this would lead to a spurt of new organizing, or a catastrophic round of unions raiding each other, is an open question.  But from the standpoint of hopes for massive anti-capitalist struggle, defending immigrant communities, resisting racism and imperialist war and (dare we say) achieving social transformation, for labor activists and socialists does this struggle inside a declining union movement really matter?

Declining Rate of Relevance

That the question "does it matter or not" can even be asked speaks volumes about the state of U.S. organized labor today—and a damn good case can be made for not. These discussions on shuffling union structures can seem remote and even a little abstract from the shop floor and community life of a working person in this country with real income falling, state/local budgets crashing, Social Security under the gun, and a war in Iraq taking the lives of their family members, co-workers and friends.

Let's look at the recomposition of organized labor from a broader perspective.  What if unions don't grow, and historically haven't grown, in the incremental ways that the new reform vision espouses?  What if they grow instead in fluid periods of mass movements in great explosive leaps?  Dan Clawson in his book Labor's Next Upsurge (ILR/Cornell University Press, 2004) asks just such a question and finds hope for the way out for the U.S. labor movement in a new upsurge.

For Clawson unions grow best in big spurts.  He points out that before 1933 total membership in unions was below three million, and by 1945 they stood at just over 15 million.  And also importantly for Clawson, the decline of unions has been one of a sudden steep drop that can only be corrected by a steep increase.  He notes that if the unions managed to double their present organizing efforts each year until 2036 they would merely be back at the same level of density as they were in 1983 (a shade over 20% of the workforce).

One question, then, is what today's unions and activists can do—from the top, from below, or both—not only to slow the unions' current decline and reverse it incrementally, but to prepare for the possibility of an explosive historic revival.  What kind of unionism would best be able to take full advantage of that potential?

Clawson and others have noted that the current crisis that workers and unions in the United States face is being played out against the backdrop of a long arc of breakdown in the pattern of labor relations brokered at the end of WWII.  The defeat of radical and social democratic impulses of the labor movement from the late 1940s cleared the way for this increasingly bureaucratized and fragmented system.

The organized sections of the working class were able to win significant improvements in wages and benefits.  But the fortunate sections of the labor movement that won gains in the heady mass movement phase of the 1930s and '40s, and the continuous economic expansion of the 1950s, were forced to incorporate these wins into a highly complex and decentralized system of contracts.  According to Clawson: "(T)he longer unions stayed within the system, the more they increased staff, and the more staff were hired for their expertise as negotiators and quasi-lawyers, the less capable labor was of mobilizing as a social movement and the more the balance of power shifted towards business."

The result was to develop unions increasingly committed to improving the health of "their own" corporations.  This would prove disastrous when the employers turned more vicious in an era of capital restructuring and a political turn to the right.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the possibility appeared of changing the unions' direction through democratic activist reform movements—in the Teamsters, Steel Workers, Auto Workers, miners and rail unions among others—but these were either defeated or at best won very limited gains.

Following years of struggle by the rank-and-file organization Teamsters for a Democratic Union and other reform forces, the possibility of a breakthrough was represented in the election of Teamster president Ron Carey in 1991, resulting in substantial democratic gains and culminating in the successful 1996 UPS strike.  The removal of the Carey administration, following a backroom campaign financing scam engineered by consultants hired from Democratic Party circles, was a tragedy not only for the Teamster ranks but for the entire union reform struggle.

The 1990s also saw some high-profile organizing successes, such as the SEIU Justice for Janitors struggle in southern California.  But when the Latino janitors organized a slate to control their own local, the SEIU International promptly trusteed it. This all-too-typical behavior illustrates the conundrum facing the labor movement: Unions cannot be reenergized by leadership that fears the very membership it seeks to organize.  An Opening

Clearly something more ambitious than renovating a dying business unionism is in order.  For all that, the debates do matter.  For starters they provide an opening for the kinds of politics articulated for decades from reformers and labor activists on the bottom rungs of unions.

Indeed many of the better ideas being raised in the debate seem taken straight from the arguments of the left side of the labor movement.  The drift of the 1970s and '80s into a formless "general unionism," in which declining unions bolstered their numbers by organizing workers in a hodgepodge fashion, was chronicled in the pages and conferences of Labor Notes—and the essential rebuilding of industrial unionism and density as a cure for labor's ills was promoted in, for example, Kim Moody's book An Injury to All (Verso, 1988) and among many labor left activists.

The Left needs vitally to remind many not just about the origins, but the thrust of how this reorganizing was meant to happen—by a reawakened social movement unionism that shook off business model unionism completely.  The idea wasn't a partial revolution from above as currently promoted from SEIU headquarters.

The latter model seeks, at best, to build a peculiar new strand of unionism which some now call "bureaucratic business unionism," or more awkwardly "campaign-driven top- down unionism."  It's a model that cherry-picks some of the labor left's ideas of organizing and mobilization, while ignoring the central ideas that are the real motor: membership control, radical shop floor and community strategies, and an authentic bottom-up internationalism.  Turning this vision into reality is a tall order indeed for a rank-and-file-oriented activist current, with relatively light institutional weight within a labor movement that is itself in deep crisis.  But that layer does exist in the unions, in workers' centers, in organizing drives and among young people who see hope in the potential for labor's revival and are considering how they can contribute to it.

In these sectors, we believe, the most important thinking and activity will begin, even if largely under the radar of established union leadership, to say nothing of the corporate media.

[Thanks to Chris Kutalik for his work in drafting this editorial.]

ATC 116, May-June 2005